Peter Johnson (MSc Administrative Sciences – now MBA Administrative Sciences, 1968) left the UK after studying at the Business School, and went on to career successes in Holland and Canada. We chatted about how his life evolved after studying with us for our continuing #Cassat50 series.
Why did you come to Cass?
My first degree was in Electrical Engineering and it was a “sandwich course”. I did six months study and six months work, sponsored by an electrical company in Manchester who paid me a small amount of money 52 weeks a year for four years.
Even though I did pretty well, it was clear to me I didn’t want to work as an Engineer. The small amount of experience that I had led me towards sales. At that time MBA programmes were relatively new, and they were all two-year programmes. There was no way to get government support or financing, so I did a bit of research and City was one of the few places that was offering a twelve-month programme, so that was critical.
The other critical thing was that one of the four specialisations was International Marketing, so those two made it a very easy decision. I applied, and was accepted and it was only the second year the programme was run. I was living in the Bunhill Row residence (which is where Cass Business School now is) and the school itself was at Gresham College and it was such a beautiful building, right in the heart of the City.
What was your experience studying at Cass?
A key thing I can say is that year was absolutely critical in helping me to shift from a left-brain Engineering nerd to a more socially-aware qualitative thinker. There were a couple of modules related to sales with a particular emphasis on human behaviour and that was something that fascinated me. It was so basic, so elementary but to me it was new and a revelation. So that was a component of the course that, to me, was very, very powerful.
To be honest, I had the feeling that the faculty was sort-of making up the programme as they went along – it was the second year – and I have to say that that made it a little less academically onerous, which actually suited me fine, because another important thing for me was having a year in London.
Previously I’d lived a very narrow existence in Manchester. I was there for four years, at a college of advanced technology that was 99% male, where there wasn’t really any university experience. Suddenly, in London, even though I had little money, I was exposed to a lot of new things, culturally and socially, and that was a really important part of that year.
I think back and it seems that one year in London was really like living anywhere else for three years!
What did you do next?
When I finished, I knew I wanted to leave the UK, and I knew I didn’t want to work in Engineering. Towards the end of the year there was a career day where representatives from various companies in England came to the the main campus, London College.
Most of them were recruiting for technical people, and weren’t expecting to meet students from the business school – nobody knew that it existed! And it just so happened that someone from Phillips Electronics knew they were looking for international recruits for their HQ in Eindhoven.
My qualifications with MSc Administrative Sciences (as it was) in International Marketing, and an Electrical Engineering degree, rang bells for them. I went there for a couple of interviews and immediately I had a very attractive offer, so that was absolutely perfect for me. I certainly couldn’t have got that offer without the City degree, regardless of what I may or may not have learned during the year!
How did you get on there?
Though the three years that I spent in Holland were incredible from a professional point of view it was not very interesting socially because Eindhoven was a company town, and I was totally focussed on my career. After three years I was transferred at my request from Holland to the same company in Toronto, so that’s how I came to Canada in 1971.
I quickly switched my orientation, making up for lost time, and decided to create a more balanced life. I then had eight years where the job was relatively easy. I enjoyed it, I was paid well, and I started to really enjoy life. I became socially more active, I bought a sailboat, obtained my pilot’s license and skied in Quebec during the winters. I met a young lady from Quebec City who later became my wife and we bought a house together in Toronto. So my focus I have to say was 70% outside work and 30% work.
Then after eight years I decided it was maybe time to restore the balance in the other direction. Phillips in Canada was solely a sales organization so I applied to another international company, Pirelli (cables, not tyres).
Pirelli cables then was much bigger in North America than Pirelli tyres, and they had a manufacturing facility in Guelph, an hour outside Toronto. So I applied there and got the job as marketing manager, which was broader than the sales role that I had with Phillips. I did very well with them, and the company in Canada improved its profitability and market share as a result of my efforts. After 10 years I became Vice President and General Manager, and I would say that I had only been hired by Pirelli because of my Engineering/MBA combination – which was more unusual back then.
How did you end up self-employed?
In 1990 Pirelli lost money internationally and that eliminated expansion plans for my operation in Guelph. I moved with them to Montreal for a couple of years, but then the Montreal operation was downsized, Pirelli Canada ceased to exist and was absorbed into Pirelli US. I was made redundant. I was 48 years old, financially sound and thrilled at the prospect of redesigning my life.
I had an excellent severance package and the support of an exceptional outplacement company, Murray Axmith. In an interesting twist they asked me to join them and I set up their 17th office in Canada. It was very successful and I really enjoyed helping other senior executives redesign their lives in similar circumstance to mine.
After three years I became aware of, and interested in, the concept of executive coaching. After some research I left Murray Axmith to set myself up as an independent executive coach. After some extensive training and education I became probably one of the first few professionally qualified executive coaches in Canada. I then had 10 years that were exceptionally satisfying, with some fantastic clients and a well balanced life. With no shortage of business I let things get out of control for a couple of years and when my wife retired from teaching I decided it was time for me to do the same. I’ve kept on a few client since then to keep the grey cells working, but only to match my schedule of activities.
I had never thought of myself as becoming self-employed or as an entrepreneur but I do think of myself as being self-reliant. I have always believed the principle that I am responsible for my own destiny, even when I’ve been part of a large corporate identity – that’s been there, maybe since my years at school. Would it have happened if I had not been made redundant? Probably not. But I’ve always been very sensitive to relationships – that was a transition that took place at Cass in London – part of my switch from left-brain to more of a human orientation.
What exactly is an Executive Coach?
The “elevator speech” is… “a coach engages a client in a spontaneously composed conversation that causes the client to develop new ideas that bring great clarity, focus and the strong desire to act in more effective and satisfying ways”. It took me years to develop that!
At the start, when people said to me “so what does an executive coach do?” I’d say “well spend an hour with me and experience what I do” and I would find that after that 7 out of 10 people would say “So when do we meet next!” For those people who get it, it is life changing, it’s astonishing. One of the points [of an article I wrote] is – who hires a coach? It’s someone with a combination of self-confidence and humility. They are confident enough that they can be transparent and self-aware but humble enough to know that they can, and want to, become more satisfied and effective.
Looking back I do recognize that I have been extraordinarily fortunate, with good opportunities that most people never have, Cass being one of them.